New Democrats are demanding the federal government crack down on social media giants following recent revelations by a Facebook executive that have rekindled questions around how to regulate big tech.
NDP MP Charlie Angus called on Ottawa to establish an independent watchdog to address disinformation, hateful posts and algorithm transparency on digital platforms.
Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before a U.S. Senate committee earlier this month that the company’s products harm children and fuel polarization in the U.S., a claim supported by internal company research leaked to the Wall Street Journal.
“Ms. Haugen reveals that Facebook knew that its algorithms are driving hate content and leading to breakdown in civic engagement,” Angus said.
“Facebook made the decision to incentivize profits through its use of its algorithms over the well-being of its users.”
As the company confronts intense public scrutiny over how its coding fans inflammatory rhetoric and affects users’ self-esteem, Angus is proposing to create an independent ombudsman accountable to the House of Commons, akin to Canada’s ethics and privacy commissioners.
“Rather than relying on outdated institutions like the Competition Bureau or the CRTC, it’s time for the federal government to establish a regulator that actually understands this file,” he said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made several pledges to overhaul internet rules in last month’s federal election.
One promised to introduce legislation within 100 days of forming government that combats harmful online materials, following the failure of a Liberal bill aiming to regulate Facebook and other platforms.
The plan would create a digital safety commissioner to enforce a new regime that targets child pornography, terrorist content, hate speech and other harmful posts on social media platforms. The regulator’s teeth would be sharp enough to order social media companies to take down posts within 24 hours.
Many large platforms already have policies that claim to meet or exceed these requirements, with some seeking to highlight or remove misleading information — about COVID-19 vaccines, for example.
New Democrats and Conservatives have also questioned why a new regulator is needed to crack down on exploitive material when the Criminal Code already bars child pornography, hate speech and the knowing distribution of illicit images.
Trudeau has further said he would reintroduce provisions of Bill C-10, which died in the Senate in August after the election was triggered. The legislation sought to bring global online streaming giants such as Netflix and YouTube under the auspices of the Broadcasting Act, requiring them to promote Canadian content and financially support Canadian cultural industries. The regime is overseen by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.
Angus said Monday that the bill amounted to a “political dumpster fire” and that having Canada’s telecommunications regulator address Facebook algorithms would bring “a 1980s solution to a 21st-century problem.”
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The legislation provoked months of debate over whether its regulation of online videos amounted to government overreach, with free speech advocates criticizing the bill and the arts community supporting it.
“I think it’s probably better for us to establish a stand-alone officer of Parliament — who reports to Parliament, who understands tech, who understands algorithms — than to turn it over to the schlimazel that is the CRTC,” Angus said, adding that Bill C-10 included “good ideas” around applying broadcast rules for funding to big tech.
Facebook was not immediately available for comment on Monday.
In an emailed statement last week, Facebook Canada said it continues make investments that target misinformation and harmful content.
“Canadians come to Facebook to connect with their loved ones, grow their businesses and share what matters to them,” the company wrote.